Absinthe reviews: the numerology of la fée verte

Age may be just a number, but scoring absinthe goes far beyond the digits scrawled on a sheet of paper which is slightly wet at the corner because you’ve been sitting your glass down there instead of on the coaster you neglected to bring over to the table. An absinthe score can often reveal as much about the drinker as the drink itself, while simultaneously issuing a firm judgment from the bench without revealing any mitigating circumstances which may have applied. Actual written reviews allow for complete control over how to present impressions, thoughts, and feelings about the drink, as well as control over the tone of voice and inflections used to convey that information; reviewers can even include anecdotes and background information which has little or nothing to do with the absinthe itself, all to the point of establishing a certain mood or setting in which to present their more concrete determinations. In short, a review is a subjective take on what value that particular absinthe holds for the reviewer; in contrast, a score is an objective determination of what value that absinthe should hold for everyone else (insofar as any human individual can be objective).

I’m not an expert on the subject of absinthe, but I’ve had the good fortune of being able to drink quite a few different ones over the past three years, and I believe that knowledge base may be of some use to some people who are considering a purchase in the near future. While I’ve taken notes on almost everything I’ve ever sampled, and even published a number of reviews online, that would be a lot of unnecessarily detailed information to force someone to wade through before dropping a pair of Benjamins on a couple of bottles of good absinthe. Consider the numbers below to be the Cliff’s notes version, minus the notes.

I’ll continue to add new scores to this list as I sample more absinthes. Perhaps at some later date, I’ll also add in three or seven descriptors to provide a little extra insight and detail (and yes, it has to be three or seven; not only are they prime numbers, but they are magic ones as well, and I’ve got to justify that title up there somehow, gentle reader). For now, though, the numbers below represent the final score (which is given first), and then in parenthesis I have given the score for each of the two categories that I wrote about previously in this post – namely, Appearance and Aroma, as well as Flavor and Finish.

Stock market figures be damned, here are the numbers that matter:

Score

  • 10 (5/5) Edouard Pernod [pre-ban circa 1905]
  • 10 (5/5) Pernod Tarragona [non-ban circa 1956]
  • 10 (5/5) Brevans H.R. Giger
  • 10 (5/5) La Capricieuse
  • 10 (5/5) Walton Waters
  • 9 (4/5) Pernod Fils [preban circa 1910]
  • 9 (4/5) Doubs Mystique
  • 9 (5/4) Jade Edouard
  • 9 (4/5) La Clandestine
  • 9 (5/4) Meadow of Love
  • 9 (4/5) Pacifique
  • 9 (4/5) Ridge Blanche
  • 9 (4/5) Ridge Verte
  • 9 (4/5) Sapphire la bleue
  • 8 (4/4) Belle Amie
  • 8 (4/4) Berthe de Joux
  • 8 (3/5) Blues Cat
  • 8 (4/4) Duplais blanche
  • 8 (4/4) Essai 5 Blanche “Brut d’Alambic”
  • 8 (4/4) Leopold Bros.
  • 7 (4/3) Duplais verte
  • 7 (4/3) Vieux Pontarlier
  • 7 (3/4) Eichelberger 68 Limitee
  • 7 (4/3) Kübler [European version]
  • 7 (3/4) LDF Absinthe Suisse La Verte (PAS AUTHORISEE par le VdT)
  • 7 (3/4) Mansinthe
  • 6 (3/3) La Valote
  • 6 (3/3) Obsello
  • 6 (3/3) Père François
  • 6 (3/3) Vieux Carre
  • 5 (3/2) Lucid
  • 5 (3/2) Un Emile 45 [reformulated 2011 version]
  • 4(3/1) Trillium
  • 4 (3/1) Pernod aux extraits de plantes d’absinthe [modern Pernod]
  • 3 (2/1) St. George
  • 2 (2/0) La Charlotte

Absinthe Premier Fils promotional dice. Photo by Marc Thuillier.

Absinthe from the “Gateway to the Mediteranean”

As one or two of you may have noted in the comments section of one of my previous blog posts, I recently purchased a sealed bottle of vintage Pernod Fils Tarragona. While the Tarragona operation in Spain was originally started by the Edouard Pernod distillery around 1910 in order to escape the Swiss and (soon to come) French ban on absinthe, the operation was absorbed by the larger Pernod group sometime around 1938. At this time, the recipe appears to have changed from that of the spicier Edouard Pernod, to the more floral and somewhat “feminine” Pernod Fils recipe, and continued on in that vein until 1960, when a new master distiller and new recipe resulted in a drink which more closely resembled pastis.

This liter bottle was in excellent condition, and dates to the mid-1950s, when Spain was beginning to improve its economy and international relations under Franco’s new policies, Elvis began swiveling his hips so scandalously even as Frank Sinatra was hitting his vocal peak, and a whole lot of Americans decided they liked Ike for President. You might think that the touchstones of American history during the 1950s would have little relevance to this bottle of absinthe produced in Spain using the old Pernod Fils recipe (or near enough to it), but if you take a closer look at the picture below, you’ll see an inset featuring the unusual blue sticker on the bottle which reads: “U.S. Navy Mess.”

Now, exactly how does a Spanish bottle of absinthe (a liquor which was still banned in the United States) wind up in the galley of some U.S. Navy ship or commissary? While a relaxed “when in Spain, do as the Spaniards do” policy would likely have been a welcome change of pace for some service members, members of the U.S. armed services are almost always prohibited from engaging in activities which are legal in their host country but illegal back in the United States. However, in addition to absinthe’s legal status in the U.S. being in limbo during this time period (though not for Spain, as it was never banned there), an even more interesting fact turned up in my research on the origin of this bottle. As part of Franco’s attempt to improve international relations and create ties with the U.S., a naval base was created in 1953 in Rota, Spain, which was administered by a Spanish Rear Admiral, but completely funded by the United States and staffed with American servicemen of all branches of the U.S. military. It remains in operation to this day, and I suspect that my bottle of Pernod Fils Tarragona earned its “U.S. Navy Mess” sticker from this exact location.

But on to the really good stuff. By now, you’re probably may be wondering if I let this green genie out of the bottle, and yes, as a matter of fact, my lady love and I did open it yesterday. Special occasions are wonderful things, but sometimes a person’s expectations get blown out of proportion during those times, and so we waited for a day that just seemed like a good time for a Spanish absinthe, and yesterday was that day. The fact that it was Mother’s Day was simply a coincidence, which is just as well since both of our mothers would happily decline a glass of absinthe. (Thankfully, there are flowers, books, and tea to be given in its stead).

So how did this absinthe rate? It was like a taste of liquid sunshine. Not the ‘60s acid trip kind, mind you, but rather the metaphorical kind; it was bright and warm, full of the taste of the famous green anise of Spain while still being anchored by a very fine wormwood. Of all the absinthes I’ve tried, this was the first that tasted noticeably better when sweetened with cane sugar instead of agave nectar. That could be because the Tarragona is fairly sweet to begin with, or possibly because this recipe produces a more delicate liquor; regardless of the reason, the agave nectar didn’t smooth out sharp edges (of which there were none) so much as smear the subtle herbal nuances of the flavor.

However, it would be a mistake to think that this absinthe was too weak or delicate to stand up to a good watering; I found that it hit it’s peak at approximately a 4:1 ratio of water to liquor. While the louche activity tended to stay at the bottom half of the glass for most of the prep time, it was very active and cloudy there in the deep before storming up and overtaking the entire dose near the end of the watering for a spectacular final louching. The very high level of activity is no doubt due to the addition of star anise in a slightly higher amount than in previous decades of the Pernod Fils Tarragona, and my guess is that the action stayed at the bottom of the glass because I was using a carafe with a very thin but forceful stream, rather than dripping water into the glass.

The aroma was very pleasant, if not quite as room-filling as I was expecting it would be. As with the louche, the fragrance was playing hard to get until near the end, but the reward of leaning in for a whiff was that of an alpine bouquet resting in a field of green anise.

Overall, traditionalists might be a little bit disappointed that the alpine overtones are not as sharp or crisp as a Belle Epoque-style absinthe, but I found this one to be a pleasant and balanced bridge between the French/Swiss absinthes of the 19th century, and the more modern Spanish absentas which have a much stronger profile of green anise. It earns a full 10 points from me. Well done, Mr. J. M. Bañas!

1950s Pernod Fils S.A. Tarragona with Navy sticker (inset)

Variations in verte

If it’s true that God dwells among the minutiae (or that the devil is in the details, depending on your perspective of whatever it is you may be macroing in your lens), then there are definitely enough esoteric particulars in the world of absinthe to keep you busy searching for the divine. One set of details of interest to contemporary drinkers in the golden age of absinthe, but which has since fallen into relative obscurity, is with regard to the style of absinthe which they prefer. These various styles denote which botanicals are used during production, both for the distillation itself and afterward for the coloring step. While not necessarily hard-and-fast rules for which herbs a recipe absolutely had to use, they are useful a loose guidelines for absinthe style which were largely defined (and perhaps championed) by the region in which they originated, and have been passed down to us via the Duplais distillation manual (first published in 1855, and known as the 19th century bible of distillation). They include:

Suisse – This term may denote a grade of absinthe (the absolute highest) and/or a style of absinthe, produced by the “suisse” method and usually uncolored (i.e., a blanche). In modern times, it is mostly used synonomously with “blanche,” and there is not specific recipe aside from the “holy trinity” herbs used in absinthe distillation prior to the coloration step: grand wormwood, anise, and fennel.

Pontarlier – Considered to be the definitive style of absinthe, the Pontarlier-style is also the most streamlined recipe, consisting only of six botanicals: grand wormwood, anise, fennel, petite wormwood, hyssop and melissa (lemon balm). A rural town in the farthest reaches of eastern France near the Swiss border. This small community became the nexus of absinthe production beginning with the 1805 opening of Pernod’s distillery, and lasting through the French ban on absinthe effective in 1915. Pernod Fils absinthe is the quintessential example of the Pontarlier style. Modern examples include Jade PF 1901 (which was reverse-engineered to be a clone of preban Pernod Fils circa 1901), and Walton Waters.

Besançon –  This style of absinthe contains the same six herbs of Pontarlier-style (grand wormwood, anise, fennel, petite wormwood, hyssop and melissa), but with the addition of coriander and veronica. The city of its origin and after which it is name is also in the eastern-most part of France, just northwest of Pontarlier. I am not aware of any modern absinthes which have attempted to replicate this style.

Fougerolles – While containing the same six herbs of Pontarlier-style (grand wormwood, anise, fennel, petite wormwood, hyssop and melissa), with veronica being the only additional herb in the recipe, this style is best-known for having used the least amount of wormwood. The city in which this style originated and is named after is in the northeast of France, located north of Pontarlier and relatively close to Besançon. I am not aware of a modern absinthe made in this style; ironically, Verte de Fougerolles (now known as Enigma Verte) is reported to be noticeably wormwood-forward, which I suppose may have been what prompted the name change.

Lyon – A style of absinthe containing the same six herbs of Pontarlier-style (grand wormwood, anise, fennel, petite wormwood, hyssop and melissa), with the addition of angelica and veronica. Lyon is located in the mid-east area of France, southwest of Pontarlier. One historical brand made in this style was Absinthe Suisse Grande Distillerie Lyonnaise. To my knowledge, there are no modern absinthes which have attempted to duplicate this style.

Nimes –  In addition to the six herbs of Pontarlier-style (grand wormwood, anise, fennel, petite wormwood, hyssop and melissa), the Nimes-style adds elecampane, veronica and mint. A city of southern France, located far south of Pontarlier and just northeast of Montpellier. Modern examples include: Belle Amie and “Tex Wreck” (a homemade or HG absinthe which is not commercially available). It is possible that the forthcoming Blues Cat absinthe from Delaware Phoenix will be a take on this style.

Montpellier – A style of absinthe, containing the same six herbs of Pontarlier-style (grand wormwood, anise, fennel, petite wormwood, hyssop and melissa), with the addition of coriander and angelica. This style’s name is taken from the city of the same name, located in the south of France near the Mediterranean coast. The only modern example distilled in this particular style is Pacifique.

Absenta (or Spanish) – This style of absinthe is a relatively latecomer, with absinthe production in Spain having first become established in the early 20th century. Spanish absinthe is known for having hints of citrus and for being slightly sweeter than typical French absinthes; the sweetness is due in large part to the anise which is sourced from the Alicante region in the southernmost part of Spain, although the typically lower ABV of absentas also contributes to it’s light airiness. While there is no truly definitive list of ingredients common to all absentas, the six ingredients of the Pontarlier-style (grand wormwood, anise, fennel, petite wormwood, hyssop and melissa) are commonly used with the addition of some star anise, angelica, and a little bit of coriander. Historical brands made in this style include Absenta Argenti, as well as the Pernod Fils Tarragona from the 1940s through 1960s. A modern example of a good absenta is Obsello.

But wherein lies the devil in these details, you may wonder. The marketing of absinthe in the 19th and early 20th century depended partly on quality grades, the lowest of which no longer exist (fortunately). In short, while “absinthe suisse” was the nomenclature for a liquor of the highest quality, it was almost always used exclusively for blanches, while absinthe supérieure usually denoted the highest-quality vertes. After this came less expensive absinthes, starting with ‘absinthe fine’ as a sort of mid-shelf selection, before dropping downward to absinthe demi-fine (“half-fine”) which had a wide-ranging ABV of anywhere between about 40% to 53%, and finally ‘absinthe ordinaire,’ which generally had a higher ABV of around 46%, but was colored artificially with “indigo blue”. It was within these lower-shelf categories that the requisite cutting of corners would sometimes take a toxic turn. The coloration step of absinthe production is one of the most expensive because of the cost of high-quality herbs and other botanicals. To some folks’ minds (both then and even now), it also seems like one of the most superfluous steps, even though it isn’t just the color which is added during this stage, but also a final tweaking of the flavor.

Regardless, those distillers who were looking to save money knew that they had to replicate a proper, peridot-green color in order to sell their product. As such, they decided to take short-cuts during this final step of production by using additives which ranged from the harmless (if not exactly flavor-enhancing) inclusion of  herbs such as spinach or parsley (largely to help produce a cloudy louche effect), to the Oh-My-God-That-Is-Poisonous! addition of copper sulfate or antimony trichloride. While medical science had not yet advanced far enough for them to know it at the time, chemicals such as these can cause cardiac dysrhythmia (a.k.a., arrhythmia). I suspect that if there is any truth to preban absinthe having produced hallucinations during the Belle Epoque, it is very likely due to some poor soul having ingested one of these low-grade, poisonous absinthes.

So remember this little mantra, my friends: If it’s absinthe ordinaire, you don’t want to be there!

Digital copy cover of Duplais’s manual on distillation

I’ll have another (Pernod Fils circa 1910)

I’m a relative newcomer to the world of absinthe compared to many enthusiasts, I’ve been fortunate to have been able to try one sample of preban absinthe in my three years of chasing the green fairy. That was a life-changing event bordering on religious experience, but don’t tell Bill Mahr I said that or he might throw some of his hilariously clever (yet disturbingly mean-spirited and sometimes misogynistic) snarkiness my way.

At some later date I’ll tell you the story about mine and S—–‘s dance with a 1905 (or thereabouts) glass of Edouard Pernod. In the meantime, I’m happy to report that, in celebration of S—-‘s completion of her Master’s thesis, an arduous project which my ladylove slaved away at for more than two years while working full-time, we indulged in a glass of 1910 (or thereabouts) Pernod Fils.

Bear in mind that Pernod Fils was essentially the flagship absinthe of the Belle Epoque, or the gold-standard marque of the Gilded Age, if I may be permitted to mix geographically-specific terms, if not metaphors. It was the best-selling brand of absinthe in France, and by all accounts it was a high-quality liquor universally recognized as representing the finest of the distiller’s art, and best of what absinthe could be. Of those few folks who love absinthe enough to invest in a vial of the ever-dwindling supply of preban absinthe (a venture which should not be undertaken lightly, mind, as there are some unscrupulous folk who try to pass off newer absinthe as vintage preban), Pernod Fils is not only one of the more desirable marques to sample, but is fortunately also the most commonly encountered, by sheer virtue of how much was made and bottled in the last 20 years or so of absinthe production in France before the ban.

We had been waiting for some time to try this particular sample, and this past weekend, after all the “t”s were crossed, the “i”s were dotted, and the stars finally aligned, we pushed the button on firing the final draft of S—-‘s thesis into the ether of the net on Friday, and set about celebrating on Saturday with this liquid time-machine. I’ll confess that my experience with the Edouard Pernod had set the bar almost impossibly high (is there a pun in there somewhere?), and not surprisingly, the Pernod Fils did not make it over.

What? You’re surprised? In fairness, I should point out now that despite all the overwhelming superlatives which rush out in almost every review of a preban absinthe (most of them justified, perhaps), it’s important to temper them with the knowledge that in most cases, we are not really drinking the same absinthe that our predecessors did 100 and more years ago. Even in those rare instances where the bottles have been well-kept in cool, dark environments for the past century, absinthe by its nature of being a botanically-based and infused liquor will age more noticeably, even in a sealed glass bottle, than will almost any other liquor or liqueur (with the exception of other botanically-based boozes, such as chartreuse). As such, the aged absinthe we are drinking might have gotten “better” over time in terms of taste (although this is still technically due to degradation); likewise, it may have gotten worse, or simply been altered in a way that is neither better nor worse.

The Pernod Fils sample we had, as it exists now in 2012, was an excellent absinthe. In fact, I’d say it ranked in the top 5 of absinthes I’ve tried in terms of quality, and I’ve tried more than 30 in my three years of exploration. It had a lovely floral aroma in which the exceptional Pontarlier wormwood was prominent (although not extremely powerful), followed by the noticeable softness and fragrance of hyssop. It may be an overused adjective in the absinthe world, but the word ‘alpine’ came to mind with a focused clarity. Still, this absinthe had an almost feminine quality in terms of how subtle is was in many respects. That isn’t a criticism at all, as exceptional subtlety is something to be celebrated by anyone who can appreciate it. Nevertheless, I’ll confess that I was a comparatively disappointed since I had been expecting this absinthe to boast a powerful presence akin to the preban Edouard Pernod absinthe I had tried.

That’s when I had to stop and consider how very well-preserved this sample of Pernod Fils was in comparison to the Edouard Pernod. The 30 milliliters of this very rare drink had a bit of a peachy-brown color to it (see a picture of the louched sample below in an antique “egg” glass), and while it may not have retained much of the peridot green color that it undoubtedly had at the time of its production in or around 1910, it was still fairly clear and bright with noticeable trails of essential oils, the scent of which wafted up from the glass. In contrast to this, the Edouard Pernod sample from two years ago was a dark brown, with a deep, smoky-sweet aroma. Of the two, it’s most likely that the Pernod Fils was the closer to its original state, based on contemporary descriptions of each absinthe from a century ago. Therefore, while I may have enjoyed the Edouard Pernod sample more, that was due in significant part to how 100 years of aging affected the original Edouard Pernod, so that it was questionable how representative my glass truly was.

After our celebratory sampling was over and I took a little more time to reflect on the experience, I realized that tasting the subdued yet sublime Pernod Fils made me appreciate how close many absinthes of today have come to capturing the essence of those fine old absinthes of yesteryear. After over 100 years of refining the art of distilling absinthe in the 18th and early 19th century, folks in the early 20th century had the luxury of taking for granted the number of high-quality absinthes available to them. While many of the details of that knowledge were lost after various prohibitions on alcohol in general (and bans on absinthe specifically), distillers are slowly rediscovering the best ingredients and recipes for making wonderful absinthe. I’ll happily toast to their continued progress with a glass of the finest of modern absinthe, but I wouldn’t refuse another dose of the rare old stuff if you’re offering.

Louched glass of circa 1910 Pernod Fils absinthe

Louched glass of circa 1910 Pernod Fils absinthe

Fake it to make it

Never let it be said that there are no imaginative swindlers running amok in the world. Of course, I’d love to be able to say that and have it be true, but then again, we’d have very little to talk about if everyone were good boys and girls. That being said, if you’re going to be such a cutting-edge crook that you’re going to fake an antique absinthe bottle and label combination, you really should learn how to read first. Otherwise, you’ll end up looking silly when the glass seal on the bottle reads “Pernod Fils,” while the label itself reads “Premier Fils.”  Yes, yes, I know, there are only a few letters of difference there in the middle, but they do tend to be important.

It probably won’t be shocking to anyone to discover that the bottle pictured below was being sold on eBay recently. Oh how I do miss the relatively innocent days of endearing “ghosts in a jar” and “Mother Mary on toast” auctions on the ole’ Bay. What’s particularly said is that the bottle itself does appear to be a genuine 19th/early 20th century Pernod Fils bottle, and the “Premier Fils” label likewise also appears genuine (although this is more difficult to tell based on pictures alone). Unused vintage labels can be found without too much difficulty, though, so it’s likely that some unscrupulous person bought one of those and artificially aged and distressed it so that it would appear to be a time-worn antiquity. Of course, it isn’t necessarily the seller who did this (hey, it could even be a 100-year-old fake or gag, which would actually be appealing if proven), but one does wonder how it escaped his attention, or why he didn’t mention it in the auction description if he did in fact notice it.

In any case, it sold for 42 euros (about $65), which isn’t unreasonably high for an authentic Pernod Fils bottle without the label. Whether the buyer would have the heart to tear the presumably antique label off of it or not is something of a Sophie’s Choice, and I’m surely glad that my name isn’t Sophie.

But don’t call me Shirley, either.

Premier Fils label on Pernod Fils bottle

Pernod Fils bottle seal

Picturing Pernod Fils

Any discussion of absinthe in its heyday is not complete without mentioning Pernod Fils. Pernod Fils was the single-most popular brand of absinthe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, right up to the French ban in 1915. Although the true origin of absinthe is hotly debated, including whether or not the doctor known as Pierre Ordinaire was an historical personage at all, or something more of an allegorical figure, what is known for certain is that Henri Louis Pernod and Daniel Henri Dubied opened one of the very first absinthe distilleries in 1797. While the brand would largely become identified with France as a result of the Pernod factory built in Pontarlier in 1805, Pernod Fils absinthe production actually began in Couvet, Switzerland in 1797.

At the height of its popularity, Pernod Fils was producing 30,000 liters of absinthe PER DAY, and in addition to satisfying the thirst of millions of French drinkers, the product was shipped to many faroff and exotic countries which had likewise developed a taste for absinthe, or which were at least hosting some European expatriates (such as Paul Gauguin, in Tahiti). It was of the highest quality, as indicated by the absinthe superiore designation, and the best-selling brand of the day.

Of course, Pernod Fils didn’t get to be the Green Fairy’s favorite emissary by being slouches and keeping a good thing to themselves. Production increases over there years, and in the mid-to-late 1800s, Pernod Fils continued to capture the favor (and the francs) not only of the bourgeoisie, but also of the middle-class. Of note in this period is that Pernod Fils continued to use a grape base alcohol for their absinthe, rather than the far cheaper industrial alcohol which many other brands used, even after the devastating phylloxera blight which all but destroyed grape vines in France beginning in the 1860s and crippled the wine industry for a generation. Integrity and pride of workmanship found in an absinthe distillery? Those are some characteristics the government and the temperance movement curiously failed to acknowledge (and emulate).

Of the variety of marketing avenues the company explored, one of the best known was an elegant advertising image which became familiar to thousands of bar and cafe patrons throughout France starting in 1880. Specifically, it was a chromolithograph based on an oil painting done by artist Charles Maire. In a rather unique process, the chromolithograph print was applied to a canvas backing, and then varnish was applied to create the illusion of an actual oil painting. Each one was stretched and mounted on wood, then placed in a custom-made gilt-wood frame painted gold and featuring wormwood leaves. The end result was a sort of still-life look at absinthe, featuring a bottle of Pernod Fils, two Pontarlier-style reservoir glasses, a glass carafe full of cold water, and a newspaper proudly displaying the Pontarlier town name (which by that time had become home to more than 20 absinthe distilleries).

For absinthe historians and distillers, this artwork is particularly interesting in that it features a completely prepared glass of absinthe which accurately displays the a proper louche for Pernod Fils. Exactly how cloudy an absinthe SHOULD appear after preparation is a matter of some debate among modern distillers even today, with some insisting that a louche should not appear to be “milky.” This image unequivocally demonstrates the appropriate thickness of the Pernod Fils louche.